Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's irascible, unpredictable but devout president, may be forced to resign in the coming weeks as a political crisis far greater than the massive street violence which followed his re-election in 2009 threatens to overwhelm him and his court favourites in the government.
The overweening influence of his close friend and confidant Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaee, the president's chief of staff – who is blamed for the firing of two intelligence ministers and for infuriating even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – is expected to bring down Ahmadinejad in one of the most spectacular putsches in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Iranian politicians are already speculating on who will succeed the president – Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister and for four years the head of Iran's atomic agency, is a favourite – as three of Rahim-Mashaee's close allies have been purged in just three days over the past week, arrested by security agencies while Ahmadinejad has remained uncharacteristically silent. Mohamed Sharif Malekzadeh, who served briefly as Ahmadinejad's foreign minister; Ali Asghar Parhizkar, director of the Arvand free trade zone in the south of Iran; and his opposite number in the Aras trade zone in the north, Ali-Reza Moqimi, have all been charged with corruption, a dangerous accusation in the Islamic Republic where a fine line separates "corruption on earth" from "an enemy of God".
Iran's embattled president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned his opponents against detaining any members of his cabinet in his first public reaction to the recent arrests of his close allies.
Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the president said the arrests were politically motivated, and vowed to defend his government. Ahmadinejad's inner circle has been reduced to a handful of people after a rift emerged between him and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"I will hold myself responsible to defend the cabinet ... the cabinet is a red line and if they want to touch the cabinet, then defending it is my duty," Ahmadinejad was quoted by Iran's Irna state news agency as saying.
"From our point of view, these moves are political and it's clear to us that they are aimed at putting pressure on the government," he added.
Ahmadinejad's remarks come a week after three of his close allies, Muhammad Sharif Malekzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister, Alireza Moghimi, a senior director and Afshin Ronaghi, a deputy minister of industries and mines, were arrested.